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“Birth rates at an all-time low!” “The Germans are dying out!” “Catastrophic birth rates!” The headlines couldn’t be more alarming, but the statistics behind them lead to more complex conclusions. We picked apart Germany’s demographic anxieties.
If you've followed the German media in the last 10 years, or just strolled through a German park during the school holidays, you will have gathered that Germans aren't making enough babies.
The headlines are melodramatic and sensational, and the statistics are scary, pessimistic - and surprisingly convincing. German women, who for the past 30 years have only been squeezing out 1.4 kids each, are not producing enough offspring to ensure the survival of the German race, culture and pension schemes. According to the latest prognosis (published by the federal statistics office in November), the population will drop to 62 million by 2060, down from 82 million today.
Germany wasn’t always a nation in decline. In fact, until just 20 years ago, the Federal Republic found itself in the middle of what demographers call a "window of opportunity". This is when a country has a fairly low birth rate - meaning there are relatively few children to pay for and look after - and there is a large adult population still young enough to generate an income. These demographic conditions are considered to be conducive to economic growth, and they come 30 to 40 years after a baby boom. China, for example, is currently considered to be in this phase.
But in Germany, this demographic window is closing. "The birth rates have not changed in 30 years," says Stefan Fuchs, a researcher at the Institute for Demography, General Welfare and Family. "The average birth rate is constantly somewhere between 1.3 and 1.5 per woman. That means, in concrete terms, that every generation is replacing itself by only two thirds, so the younger generation is only two thirds the size of the older generation."
This leads to a birth deficit: when more people are dying than being born. But of course procreation is not the only way a country regenerates its population. People move in, too. Fuchs explains the balancing influence of immigration. "For the past few years, there haven’t been any visible effects. Immigrants and their children have made up for the birth deficit of native Germans. But since 2003, the birth deficit has actually increased."
Not shrinking but ageing
The statistics are startling, but the media spin on them is petrifying. Flicking through a Sunday paper, it’s easy to envision future German municipalities as deserted ghost towns, like old GDR industrial complexes. But this is unlikely, since a birth deficit does not mean a dying population. “The problem is not the shrinking population, but the ageing one,” says Fuchs. “Our main problem is not one of numbers, but of the changing age structure of Germany today. There will soon be too many old people – and not enough people of working age to provide for them.” At this point, the relatively low birth rates we have now will begin to tell more and more.
Fuchs is not afraid to put a date on this impending welfare catastrophe. “People born during the baby boom in the 1950s and 1960s will be retiring around 2015, 2020. Then we’ll have far more pensioners to pay for, and increasingly older generations to provide for them. The burden on the working population will rise dramatically.”
This, Fuchs maintains, is not a matter of theory, but of mathematical certainty. Demographers disagree about what the optimal rate of fertilisation is, but believe that an average of two children per woman is necessary to keep a population stable. This means that a good proportion of women actually need to produce three or four.
Whose fault is it?
So far, none of this has been controversial. Media reports may be alarmist and some of their assumptions may be questionable, but the statistics are solid. The arguments start when questions of blame are raised, and solutions are proposed.
Many German newspapers like to blame women with university degrees: they are said to remain childless at a whopping rate of 40 percent. At first glance, this seems quite plausible, since women who study longer automatically delay the time they start having children - especially in Germany, where a masters’, or Magister, can take you into your early thirties. But although the statistics consistently show that women with a university education have fewer children, until recently they have not taken into account the fact that women with degrees are most likely to have babies after the age of 38. A 2007 study by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research found that the oft-cited statistic that 40 percent of German women with degrees do not have children was wrong. It found that many of the women surveyed actually went on to have kids, and that in fact the figure was closer to 30 percent, only slightly above the average.
A much more contentious issue is how to stimulate the birth rate in order to avert the impending welfare catastrophe. As Minister of Family Affairs in the last legislative period, the popular Christian Democrat Ursula von der Leyen pursued an agenda very clearly aimed to encourage procreation: she fought for an increase in Kindergeld (the monthly child allowance; a €20 increase by 2010), the creation of more crèche places, support for paternity leave. But so far, it has been to no avail. Birth rates resolutely remain where they have been for the past 30 years. There was a slight, temporary bump in early 2009 - much reported in the press - but demographers agreed it did not indicate a sea change. Fuchs believes that any political measures to increase the birth rate can only have a superficial effect. Financial stimulants have even less effect on the demographic group with the least number of children: the middle and upper income brackets.
The singles strike back
There is a growing lobby group that suspects the whole alarmist debate over low birth rates is in fact a big political smokescreen. Bernd Kittlaus runs a website called “The Single Existence” to protect the interests of singles against a government policy that’s squeezing them financially and a media that’s accusing them of degenerating society.
“Just before the financial crisis, the Berlin Institute for Population and Development was praising Iceland to high heaven,” says Kittlaus. “It gave Iceland the best chances for the future. But apparently demography is not as vital to a country’s future as scaremongers would have us believe. No one would claim now that Iceland is in a better position than Germany.”
Kittlaus also points to the 2007 book Less Are More by sociologist Karl Otto Hondrich; in it, Hondrich argues that the birth deficit is actually a “stroke of luck” for Germany, a natural shedding of overabundance to achieve a healthy balance.
“The labour force of a national economy is not remotely dependent on the children born among the people,” Hondrich claims. “On the contrary, prosperous small countries like Switzerland, Luxemburg and the United Arab Emirates are built to a great extent on imported labour. Independent of this, the economy has always been able to find the labour force it needs – by reducing unemployment, employing more women, lengthening working hours, or getting people to start work younger.”
Hondrich points out that if Germans had been having enough kids in the last 30 years to satisfy the scaremongers, there would now be between 100 and 200 million people squashed into Germany.
The politicians’ motivation for encouraging reproduction is clear – creating more kids means creating more future earners, which means securing a tax income for the government. Corner a member of the Christian Democrat Union or the Free Democratic Party and they will tell you that an increase in child benefits is a sound investment.
But the government’s policy is also inspired by deep social conservatism. The FDP’s new proposal is to divert money from kindergartens to give parents Betreuungsgeld – extra care money if they keep their young children at home. This is obviously intended to foster traditional family bonds, but its ultimate affect could be to discourage procreation.
Feminist writer Susanne Klinger of the internet publication Mädchenmannschaft thinks such ideas have led the ruling coalition to a completely mistaken family policy. “We Germans need to rethink our attitude to children,” she says. “If we think that children and mothers should be forced to be together, and people have to be financially covered before they consider having kids, then it’s no wonder that fewer children are being born.”
Unlike the single-existence champion Kittlaus, Klinger believes that it is working parents who are most discriminated against by the current system - in their own way, they are considered just as sociopathic as those childless singles. But the one thing that these outcasts agree on is this: the mass hysteria about low birth rates is a calculated attempt to push them into the maternity ward.